Swoon (DJ Savarese)

Reviewed by P. F. Anderson

The first time I read Swoon, I raved that reading it was like taking a master class. Asked, “in what?” I had no answer. The second time I read this book, I repeated myself, and sat bemused, baffled, frowning slightly, trying to find an answer to my own question. For a period of time, interactions with the book were as if this was a text for bibliomancy, opening the slender volume at random to find meaning, a gut punch, a heartache, a wound throbbing, a twist, a laugh. 

Swoon, to me, studded with brilliant twists and puns, words with many meanings, but all the meanings make sense. I shared this book, over and over, kept raving about it, sent messages telling other librarians to be sure to buy it. I suggested an excerpt from “Oberlin Diary” (“03/22/2012,” p.19) as a reading for our campus’s Disability Day of Mourning (DDoM) event. If you don’t already know, the author, DJ Savarese, is a nonspeaking autist, and the star of the documentary Deej. At our DDoM event, the poem was read by another nonspeaking autist with their AAC device. It gave me the shivers, hearing it aloud. “My head, like a rubber ducky, / refused to be submerged.” The words themselves bounced, floated, and reverberated. The third time, I read the book backwards, and found puns and wordplay I’d missed before (reading it straight), suddenly seeing some of the structures and formalism I’d overlooked before.  

Swoon is a remarkable book. I want it to win many awards. I want it to be read, by many people, and reread, taught, studied, queried deeply, never taken for granted. It is not a remarkable book “because” of or “despite” DJ’s being Autistic. Please, may the powers-that-be forbid that this be read as inspiration porn. I suspect this book would itself shatter any efforts to impose an inspiration porn framing upon it. This is a remarkable book because it is a remarkable book, because it is exquisitely written, because it tells fierce/joyful/funny/awful stories and catalogs a particular lived experience from a perspective very rarely survived, witnessed, remembered, and told. It speaks with a voice inside silence. There is so much here. It is a grace that the poems are written with such sensitivity to the words and rhythms, that they unfold traditional and unfamiliar or novel poetic forms with the gravity and lightness of a Bach fugue, that the poems and forms play with meaning and shape and delight. 

“Oberlin Diary” opens the book with a series of fifty short poems, each one titled with dates spread across the Spring of 2012. Three poems to a page, each with two to five lines, most with four. Some, separated by other entries, connect as fragments of a single story at different points in time. Moments of unutterable pain are treated as matter-of-factly as meditation, Buddhism flavors observation with distance, the poems peppered with ironic koans that expand upon each re-reading. “Is the penis a wasp? / Does it have to sting?” (“04/01/2012,” p.22) The diary entry poems zoom across years of experience, darting between long ago and almost now as if they breathe together. “So past and present / become one entity.” (“04/17/2012”, p.28) Each short poem is a story, compressed like coal into diamonds. 

The remaining four sections of Swoon include: 

  • Beer & Wasps (which closes with the title poem, “Swoon”); 
  • From A Doorknob for the Eye & Studies in Brotherly Love (selected earlier works); 
  • City Song (a long poem in 12 sections);
  • The Earth Beneath Us (and Sometimes the Sky).

All the sections are studded with lines and phrases that both tie their poem together and stand apart, independent. I think of beams that form a skyscraper, and stars that form a constellation; the way words form phrases, phrases form sentences, then paragraphs, then pages. DJ’s words instead form thoughts and images and poems simultaneously, as if defying physics and linear time. Some of my favorite examples include:

  • “My cricket heart hides in the grass.” p.37
  • “The waves are like sandpaper / for the ear” p. 45
  • “Does diversity have a call number?” p. 60
  • “You work in a sheet – / metal shack / on the grounds / of a universe.” p. 69
  • “The way they eat light for lunch / and burp out happiness?” p. 77
  • “Heaven, I’m certain, is an OfficeMax chair / and mercy a fabric cubicle.” p. 83
  • “In Confederate Tennessee, / the stone that killed men / also remembered them.” p. 97

Each section holds itself together, as if it is its own thing. “Beer & Wasps” is a montage of memories crafted in couplets and paragraphs, sensory images chained together like a necklace one can remember or remove, dangling droplets of mythos. In “From …,” the section of excerpts from prior publications, there are exquisite pieces creating their own form with comments on themselves. If I tried to explain “The Unmerited Favor of Light” (pp. 70-73), I would spoil it, and I’m trying so hard not to give away spoilers, because this book is such a delight. “Hen” (pp. 61-63) ends stanzas with right-leaning dropped lines that remind me of the titular birds, yet which punctuate profound philosophical musings. As a particular example of these delicious forms, “Squeeze Box” (pp. 66-67) divides each line (except two) into three sections: a rhythmic phrase, a long breath, a compression. 

You were like a disc jockey on the                                             Titanic,adoomed
pancake turner, spinning your songs                                           in sudsywater.

In “City Song,” the twelve sections remind me of short sonnets, but none are longer than eleven lines. Each has sections of rhythm and repetition in phrases or symbols, as if written with drumming in the background, images resting and then repeating. The mannikins shift between segments from humor to horror to bitter and back. As in other portions of the book, each section reads like a small gem of a poem, but then when examined in the context of the larger work takes on new layers, and an image from one segment may appear to become something completely different in another segment, until you realize both interpretations work in both locations. I’m waiting for time or help to extract the layers and structures that scaffold “City Song” like a blueprint or an urban planning analysis overlaid with an anatomical vasculature. I know there is more in there than I have yet perceived. 

The last section of the book, “The Earth…” is a series of dedications, each poem titled “To” something or someone, with the poems themselves lyrically twining learning, science, history, mythology, politics, insight. The last three lines of the closing poem are themselves easily worth the price of the entire book, if the idea of trying to justify the value of the book in monetary terms didn’t make me want to laugh and cry at the same time. I also don’t want to overlook the “Notes” section at the end of the book. Those four pages of brief comments on selected poems offer jumping off places to learn more about the subject matter which informs the poems. So many of the poems explore autism itself, as an experience, as a treasure, as a vulnerability, and as a community. In the broader disability community, we learn of deaf gain or blind gain, in which the idea is that there is value in diversity of all sorts, and that the difference between the tropes of disability as loss or superpower falls somewhere in the center. In Swoon, some parts of the book read almost as a love poem to autism gain, and the “Notes” section is integral to that experience and plan.  

Eventually, I did figure out the answer to my original (and repeating) question, at least for me. Swoon is a masterclass in poetic perception and memory, an eloquence that wraps trauma in formalism, a brutal and comforting elegance of language. 

Title: Swoon
Author: DJ Savarese
Publisher: Nine Mile Books
Year: 2022

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About the Reviewer

P. F. Anderson self-identifies as a queer, non-binary, neurodivergent Jew with multiple disabilities, both visible and invisible, who has spent the pandemic time focused internally, quietly blurred out of the intensity of the pandemic by having Long COVID, from which they are still recovering over 1200 days later. P. F. Anderson writes both poetry and technical works, has an insatiable hunger for books (especially poetry), and struggles to declutter in mind and space and time.